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Drawn of a new age

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Pavel Barter, The Sunday Times, 28 November 2010

Drawn of a new ageEdit

Robert Curley has taken a break from stacking shelves to talk about the current crop of bestsellers in the world of comics. American superheroes have plenty of fight left in them, he says, especially fresh interpretations of Batman. Zombie sagas are big news and classic graphic novels such as Alan Moore's 1986 masterpiece Watchmen are still popular.

For Curley, selling comic books is more than a job - it is a quasi-spiritual passion. His new source of pride, though, is hidden behind the counter, its colourful frames sealed behind laminated pages. The League of Volunteers, out next month, was penned by his own hand.

"The Volunteers are a secret subversive team of G2, the Irish intelligence force, called in to keep the nation's neutrality during the second world war," explains Curley, who combined historical fact with superhero fiction for the story. The characters include Glimmer Man, an Irish version of Captain America, and Fionn mac Cumhaill, the mythological giant.

Curley, who runs the Sub City comic shops in Galway and Dublin, may seem like just another pop-culture obsessive working in a marginal medium, but his passion is filtering through to the mainstream. The Irish comic-book scene is taking flight, producing indigenous talent and local stories. On the back of global graphic successes such as Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning Maus, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, traditional publishers are finding opportunities for the medium.

O'Brien Press is developing six graphic novels for publication next year. Before it produced Blood upon the Rose (2009), Gerry Hunt's visual telling of the 1916 Easter Rising, the Dublin publisher had ignored the medium, but it sold out its first run of 4,000 copies, despite initial scepticism.

"Most booksellers said, 'It's a comic book, so it's for kids,' " says Ivan O'Brien of O'Brien Press. "We said, 'No, it's a history book.' A lot of booksellers told us this could not work. I met one buyer for a major chain a few months after Blood upon the Rose came out. The first thing he said was, 'You were right, we were wrong.'

"We're very enthusiastic about the whole area, without being naive and foolish and risking our shirt on it. Visual communication is becoming increasingly important. Kids learn visually more than ever; therefore, generations moving into the book-buying demographic are more used to relying on graphics."

Hunt knew O'Brien Press was taking a chance on his book but also knew the demand was there. "When I started going into places like Forbidden Planet, there were no Irish comics," says Hunt, who is working on a sequel. "At some stage, they got a little basket in the corner with 'Irish comics' written on it. These were done by kids of 14 or 15 and they were woeful. Still, you couldn't help but praise their enthusiasm. Since then, the standard has shot up enormously."

Until the late 1990s there was hardly any graphic-novel production in Ireland. Northern Ireland produced a crop of artists and writers, such as Garth Ennis, the writer of Preacher, whose twisted tales and dark religious allegories have won him iconic status. Yet Ennis got his break on British publications such as 2000 AD. Ireland has never had the graphic-novel tradition of France, Spain or Japan, so local creatives were forced to start from scratch.

Curley was the unlikely mentor, launching Atomic Diner, a small publishing company in 2003 and giving Hunt, a retired architect, his break with In Dublin City. Through the 2004 anthology Freakshow, an Americana-influenced collection of crime stories, he provided a launch pad for most of today's professional Irish comic-book artists. Stephen Mooney has since worked on American graphic tie-ins such as CSI, Angel, The Mummy and The A-Team, while Declan Shalvey drew last year's popular 28 Days Later and now works for Marvel.

Curley's decision to pay artists encouraged them to take the job seriously rather than as a hobby, even though the work is primarily overseas. Despite O'Brien's interest, mainstream Irish publishing has yet to embrace the medium. "In general, it seems to be dismissed as childish fare or purely superhero fodder," says Shalvey. "It's rarely looked upon as a form of literature. I guess that can be an effect of the mix of art and writing, but nevertheless, in comics there's a wealth of fantastic stories with a wealth of genres. Not many people know that drama films such as Road to Perdition and A History of Violence were based on comics."

There is also debate about who Ireland's comic-book audience is. O'Brien believes most readers are teenage boys, and adds that traditional book shops are reticent about selling graphic novels. Curley disagrees. "Sub City opened 16 years ago. When we started it was just us and Forbidden Planet," he says. "Every major bookshop in the country is doing graphic novels now. They are the biggest expansion in the book trade over the past 20 or 30 years."

About 85% of the customers are male, Curley admits, but he says fewer teenagers read comics these days: "Most readers are aged between 20 and 50."

"It's not so much of a guilty pleasure any more," says Mooney. "I'd certainly see more people reading comics on the train. Even 10 years ago you would never have seen that. It's not like Japan or France, where everyone is reading comics, but now, when I tell people what I do, I don't get the bemused look I used to. My aunties would ask, 'When's Stephen getting a real job?' "

Comic-book creators who can't find work overseas or with a mainstream Irish publisher can always take the DIY route, of course. There has been a spate of self-published Irish-language comics over the past decade, including books from the Co Mayo-based Cló Mhaigh Eo and Aidan Courtney's annual anthology, Ri-Ra. Foreign-language comics, including ones in Welsh and Ulster Scots, inspired Courtney to compile Ri-Ra's irreverent strips.

Unlike any other creative medium in Ireland, the comicbook scene has flourished through unity. Small-press publishers, artists and writers meet regularly at events such as the Dublin Comic Jam and Derry's 2D comic festival. Some professional artists, including Mooney and Shalvey, have banded together on the blog Eclectic Micks. Many attribute the emergence of the Irish comic-book scene to the internet, which has allowed artists to pool resources and eases the creative process. They no longer have to leave the country to find work, thanks in part to the artists' tax exemption and the digital delivery of content.

"You can do the work anywhere," says Mooney. "Any building or desk space. Over the past 10 years it is all scanned and emailed, whereas the artwork for every page used to be sent by FedEx. It was very laborious; I can't fathom how much back and forth there must have been."

Technology is also changing the way people read comic books. After Irish publishers rejected Tomm Moore's graphic-novel tie-in for The Secret of Kells, his Oscar-nominated film, he turned to digital media. The book was subsequently published on Apple's iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and as an online download. Digital publishing is considered more cost-effective, and offers readers a faster way of getting their fix. However, this method of distribution threatens the single-issue comic, and is another hammer blow to comic-book stores.

If Curley is worried about the future of his business, he does not show it. For the comic-book aficionado, a love of the physical work is stronger than any convenience provided by technology. "You don't get the whole collector's mentality, which I have, on an iPad," Curley points out.

For the most part, Irish artists do not have a problem with digital distribution - increased exposure for the medium, on whatever platform, can only further the cause. These artists have dedicated their lives to comics, often working up to 12 hours a day on a page. For Ireland's comic-book creators, passion comes before profit.

"I'm 74," says Hunt. "Making graphic novels gives you a feeling of youth, especially when you see your work up on the shelf. Drawing comics is a lonely business but there is nothing I would rather do."

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